by Mandy Moran Froemming
Having a new boyfriend or girlfriend can be exhilarating.
So intoxicating even that young people are willing to ignore the warning signs of abuse. It might start with what seems like flattering jealousy, or non-stop texts from a partner wondering where you are or what you are doing. But that can quickly transition into scary, or even violent, behavior.
But the pressure to be liked or just to be part of a couple are reasons why teens say they stay in unhealthy relationships.
In Anoka County, 11 percent of ninth-grade girls and 16 percent of 12th-grade girls acknowledge that someone they were going out with hit, hurt, threatened or made them feel afraid.
These, among other statistics from the Minnesota 2010 Student Survey, are cause for concern among educators, parents and violence prevention specialists.
“It is something the young people know about, but it’s not necessarily on a lot of adults’ radar,” said Donna McDonald, violence prevention coordinator with Anoka County Community Health and Environmental Services Department.
The local statistics are concerning, she said.
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and for the first time the Alliance for a Violence Free Anoka County is leading the charge to increase awareness surrounding the issue that is affecting more kids at younger ages than ever before.
The alliance has teamed up with the Boston’s restaurant in Coon Rapids to promote teen dating violence awareness by creating a pledge for teens to take, vowing to be part of healthy, abuse free relationships.
Boston’s Cares has also sponsored both dine-in and dine-out fund-raisers to raise awareness and benefit the county’s Domestic Violence Council.
Local advocates are hoping that more discussion about the dangers of teen dating violence and abuse will help to foster more healthy relationships among young people.
The student survey also reported that 11 percent of ninth-grade and 15 percent of 12th-grade girls had been forced to have sex or do something sexual that they did not want to do.
Young people ages 12 to 19 experience the highest rates of rape and sexual assault and people ages 18 and 19 experience the highest rates of stalking, according to information released by the U.S. Department of Justice.
McDonald said teen dating violence can also be a precursor to risky behavior in the future.
And there is more to dating violence than you might think.
“We are often very aware of the physical violence, but there are other things as well,” said McDonald.
Possessiveness, extreme jealously and the need for a partner to know where the other is and what they are doing are all red flags.
The effects of dating abuse and violence are far-reaching and can have a negative affect on health.
Teens who are victims are more likely to be depressed and do poorly in school, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They may engage in unhealthy behaviors, like using drugs or alcohol.
Talking about it
At Andover High School, dating violence is a topic that is being addressed on a number of platforms.
While most students have not experienced violent behavior first hand, they have seen the warning signs in their own relationships and those with friends. Lying, possessiveness and attempts to keep them from other friends are all behaviors these teens see as unacceptable.
Some students have even seen the violence up close, in the relationships of their mothers or their sisters.
It has taught them to be very aware of disrespectful behavior, many said.
When she was 14, Andover senior Leanna Xiong says she was in an unhealthy relationship with a boy.
“He made me feel like he was the only person who would think that I was beautiful and nobody else would care about me the way that he did,” said Xiong.
She agrees with other students this kind of behavior often starts in middle school.
Now 18, things are much different for Xiong.
“I’ve been in a healthy relationship for three years and it has really taught me to respect myself,” said Xiong.
Why did she tolerate being treated badly in the past?
“The world around me without being in a relationship seemed scary,” she said.
The Andover teens agreed that while they don’t think that destructive Hollywood romances make the dramatic situations enviable, they do see that the media creates a lot of pressure to be part of a couple.
This can mean young boys or girls put up with bad behavior just to be able to be in a relationship.
Anna Wilkin, a student learning advocate at the high school, said staff look for ways to keep that conversation going, because all students are at risk.
The students participated in this week’s dining event at Boston’s and have been finding other opportunities, through school-wide announcements or discussions in small groups, to talk about respect in relationships.
Wilkin and other staff talk with the students, not just about the warning signs of unhealthy relationships, but also what it takes to have a healthy relationship: mutual respect, separate identities, support, honesty and trust.
“We have a lot of one-on-one discussion with students about relationships,” said Wilkin.
The group agrees that girls aren’t the only victims of dating violence. While less talked about, boys can also be on the receiving end of abusive behavior.
The students at Andover also agree that most of the abuse that takes place among teens is emotional rather than physical, and it goes both ways between boys and girls.
John Hennessey said he watches out for girlfriends that can’t be trusted, or who are controlling or clingy.
“They are the ones who won’t let you spend time with your friends, who need to be with you all the time,” he said. When a teen finds themselves in that situation, Hennessey suggests they first talk to their boyfriend or girlfriend about it.
The same goes for friends.
Carly Mueller said if she saw a friend being abused in a relationship, or bad behavior from a boyfriend or girlfriend behind their back, she would talk to them about it.
“If you care about that person, you have to tell the person,” she said. “I would tell my friend what I’ve seen that person doing.”
And why are so many girls attracted to the kind of guy who might be abusive?
“I think they like the confidence they might see in those guys, that they are kind of cocky,” said Hennessey.
Bettering the World, a student-led service group at the high school that formed after the students took part in Rachel’s Challenge, has been sharing information with students about dating violence and promoted the dining events at Boston’s throughout the school.
Signing the pledge
Jessica Christopherson, Coon Rapids High School girls’ hockey coach, has her team signed on, pledging to be part of violence-free relationships.
Thirty-one girls from the school’s varsity and junior varsity squads signed the pledge. It calls for teens to promote that love is respect.
Christopherson said it was a good way to open the door to an important conversation about a topic that isn’t always popular.
“It isn’t always easy for the girls to talk to their parents about this kind of thing,” she said. “We want them to know we care about them as kids away from the arena, not just as athletes.”
Fewer than one in three teens in an abusive relationship will actually confide in their parents, according to Futures Without Violence. And while this organization reports that 82 percent of parents feel confident they could recognize if their child was experiencing dating abuse, a majority of parents surveyed could not identify all the warning signs of abuse.
Christopherson hopes the ripple effect of signing the pledge can travel outside the Coon Rapids squads.
“I think this can help unify the girls, not just in the hockey community but it can be so much broader than that,” said Christopherson, who hopes the girls are able to take spread the word into other circles of their lives.
For Boston’s, stepping up to be a part of this campaign was a good fit for the local restaurant.
“At Boston’s Coon Rapids we host fund-raisers for and sponsor several of our local high school sports teams, so you could say we have a soft spot for our local teens,” said Cassandra Martin, community relations coordinator.
“When the Domestic Violence Council brought teen dating violence issues to our attention it was a natural fit for our Boston’s Cares campaign. There is no better time to talk about teen dating then right around Valentine’s Day.”
This issue will continue to be on the radar for many students and school groups as they take on their own projects to spread the word about teen dating violence and abuse.
Columbia Heights and Spring Lake Park high schools’ students are participating in “Beyond the Mirror: A Project to End Dating Violence through Art, Education and Community Building.”
They will showcase their artistic creations through public events March 20 at Columbia Heights High School and Spring Lake Park High School March 22.
Through a variety of art forms their performances and visual art pieces will illustrate unhealthy behaviors, signs of troubled relationships, what healthy relationships look like and community resources available to youth.
Teachers, Anoka County violence prevention professionals and local artists have helped to educate the students about teen dating violence and other forms of abuse.
“Our research is showing this is happening at younger ages,” said McDonald. “This is a public health issue that affects health long term. People are starting to talk about it more but we need to get it on the public’s radar screen.”
Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]